What’s going on with “What’s Going On”?

April 08, 2015

I’ve never understood why people think Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is a masterpiece. It’s reached the sacred cow status of an all-time classic, sitting up there with Sgt Pepper, Citizen Kane, and War and Peace. It has been established as one of the greatest records of of all time - an album that only a contrarian could dislike. But, in the same way that those other classics tend to rest on their laurels, how many of those people who say it’s a classic actually listen to it on a regular basis?

Perhaps, as with so many “classic albums”, the reputation is more about its impact than the music itself. It’s been described as the first black concept album, and it was groundbreaking in some ways. Timing is everything - if it were released today, would anyone pay it much attention? Then again, if it were released today, we wouldn’t have heard any of the thousands of things that were inspired by it.

And maybe that’s the problem I have when I listen to it. More than the album itself, I have a problem with its legacy. It’s got a lot to answer for. In the same way that Aretha Franklin is partly to blame for Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, there’s a line that can be drawn from Marvin Gaye through Luther Vandross, Usher, D’Angelo and R Kelly.

Maybe it’s unfair to blame someone for the people they influenced. Just as it isn’t right to blame Hegel for Hitler, Jesus for Fred Phelps, or the Beatles for Oasis, Marvin Gaye isn’t entirely responsible for the slew of smooth Mr Loverman soul singers who came after him. But still, having heard the pale imitations, it’s difficult to listen to the original in the same way again.

It isn’t just R&B singers who have been influenced. The party sound effects at the beginning influence the skits that plagued a lot of hip-hop records. Incidentally, some of the voices at that party are Marvin’s friends who played for the Detroit Lions, which relate to Marvin’s bizarre plan to give up music and join the NFL.

As seems clear from an idea like that, the man was not thinking things through fully during this period in his life. The album has been widely praised for conscious lyrics, but to me a lot of them are the kind of lazy clichés that some kid would come out with a few weeks after he’s discovered smoking dope. Half the time he couldn’t even be bothered to write lyrics, descending into quasi-scat woohs and yeahs with some vague semblance of a melody, or lifting meaningless phrases from ad campaigns, like “flying high in the friendly sky”.

Maybe the fact that the album is self-produced is a big part of the problem with the album. The title track is the one that gets me the most, but maybe that’s because I don’t often get past it. Who mixes a record so it fades out and fades back in again? There was nobody there to rein in Marvin’s self-indulgence, nobody keeping the arrangements tight, nobody making sure that the musicans were sober. Behind those lyrics, there’s a noodling, unstructured jam backing track that’s so half-arsed that James Jamerson was lying down while recording it.

Having said that, one man’s noodling is another man’s jazz, and it’s no coincidence that this was the first time that Motown musicians were credited on a record sleeve, and their jazz background is much more evident than it had been when the experienced Motown producers were keeping them on a tight leash. There is a great sense of space on a lot of the songs, so it’s very sample-friendly, and the piano on Inner City Blues is awesome.

But again, it all comes back to the reputation. Because it’s so acclaimed, it becomes near impossible to listen to it without all of its baggage, without absurdly high expectations that it will blow your mind. It’s a good album. But when you’re expecting to hear something amazing, something good is a disappointment.